In 2002, the then municipal manager of Cape Agulhas municipality, Keith Jordaan, asked me for ideas to improve the area for tourism. I gave him three ideas:
- Create a world class, iconic site at Cape Agulhas to celebrate it as the southernmost tip of the African continent and where two oceans meet.
- Napier was a dry and boring little village then with a largely ugly main street, so I suggested removing half of every third parking bay — which are rarely used — to plant an avenue of trees. (The sidewalks were too narrow for planting.)
- Restore Bredasdorp’s old railway station — the southernmost on the African continent — and get tourist trains running there… steam trains preferably.
I discussed these with my old friend and respected colleague, David Jack, on his farm outside Napier over breakfast one morning. There are few people whose judgement I trust more. He was enthused by the ideas, and started telling me about the work of an American landscape architect he had seen recently, which would be so appropriate for Cape Agulhas. We spoke about a competition for designs and a possible champion, when we discovered that the then-CEO of the WWF had a house in nearby Struisbaai.
For Napier, Dave asked me to tell the municipal manager that he would donate the trees! I did, and at a subsequent municipal meeting I was asked to repeat the offer. The official responsible for services said he couldn’t allow it because it would mean raking up leaves!
In 2014 I became aware of a competition for the design of an iconic site at Cape Agulhas. I read the competition document and found it a bit wishy-washy, so I called one of the judges — the late Fabio Todeschini. He wasn’t aware that he was one of the judges and hadn’t formally accepted any invitation! So I wasn’t going to hold any high hopes…
Then Bernie Oberholzer, a landscape architect I’ve known and respected for decades, recently asked if I had been to see the iconic site. He sent me information about it… and I started looking forward to seeing it with eager anticipation. Might they have just got this right?
It’s against that background that I visit the so-called iconic site.
I arrived and parked in a scrappy little parking area where tour buses jostled with cars. I looked for signs to see if dogs were prohibited and, seeing none, took Beezus along with me. I followed the stream of people walking across the beach, with nothing in front of us to suggest we were approaching an iconic site… and arrived at the old stone block and sign that’s been there for decades. Now with a boardwalk in front of it! Had I been cheated? And only then did I see the new construction on the northern side.
To me, the old plaque marking the southernmost point is reminiscent of the old Public Works department. And the kerbstone signs for the oceans are just too ghastly for words. This is one of the most photographed signs in South Africa, and this is what we are giving international visitors to take home with them!
The only people who were entering the area correctly — through the new structure — were those getting off tour buses and being led by a tour guide. Appointing a car guard who directs people would be an interim solution.
Because I had read Bernie’s description of the structure (below), I could “get” what they were trying to achieve. For me, it misses the opportunity to create a memorable space, and certainly doesn’t justify the title “Iconic”. But yes, it’s the place and not the new construction that’s iconic.
The vertical blades denoting the four quadrants of the compass feel like an afterthought, but that’s thanks to Heritage Western Cape. They instructed that the height of the proposed blades be reduced dramatically. Having the raised map of Africa enclosed by four tall blades would have made a big difference… for the better.
Oh… and before SA National Parks tells me the project isn’t finished, is there a sign welcoming me to your work in progress; outlining what’s to come; in a place I can see? Get your act together!
The following is a report by the Landscape Architect which really does need to be part of the stry.
Summary of Project Attributes
The statement of intent is contained in the vision and brief for the project, the design response being to create a landmark at the southern tip of Africa – an iconic and memorable destination point for both local and overseas visitors. The design process was enriched by the combined inspirations of landscape architect, architect and land artist, resulting in a seamless and cohesive design statement, sometimes through robust debate.
A heritage assessment and an EIA of the project was carried out by independent consultants, which helped to inform the siting and form of the iconic structure and related boardwalks.
A 2004 Strategic Plan for the Agulhas Lighthouse Precinct was prepared by Setplan, with input by landscape architect Bernard Oberholzer, and included guidelines for a southern tip structure with stone walls, map of Africa and compass coordinates. A competition for the design of the southern tip was held in 2010, the 4 winners eventually forming the ‘Agulhas Icon Design Group’.
Great care had to be taken to protect the fragile coastal vegetation during construction, as well as from trampling by visitors. This was achieved by clear demarcation of the construction site and the introduction of timber boardwalks to confine pedestrian routes. The strike of the sandstone formations in a NW-SE direction is echoed in the paving pattern, along with the equator and tropics of the Africa map.
Access to the site, located within the Agulhas National Park, is free and therefore available to all income groups.
Besides the employment created for the contractor and his team, the re-vegetation was done by a team of 11 local
workers as part of the Expanded Public Works Programme.
The geographical significance of the southern tip of the continent, along with the nearby historical Agulhas lighthouse, meant that the site was of major heritage importance. The design was therefore informed by heritage indicators prepared by specialists for SANParks. One of these indicators was that the design must be low-profile in order to not compete with the lighthouse or coastal setting.
Protection of Places
The area was previously criss-crossed by vehicle tracks and pedestrian paths resulting in damage to the coastal vegetation. This has now been rationalised through the design of the icon precinct and use of raised boardwalks, while areas disturbed by trampling and construction have been revegetated.
Design Innovation and Creativity
The role of the two land artists in particular resulted in an additional creative impulse, including innovative use of materials and pigments to form the relief map of Africa, and the steel compass blades. Much of this was pioneering work for the design team.
The harmonious visual form is a result of the use of local materials, such as the sandstone for the walls, beach cobbles in the paving design, sea shells in the concrete surfaces, and local plant material. The intention is that the plants will smother the stone walls over time, so that they meld with the landscape, much like mysterious ruins. The walls are also designed to feather into the ground for the same reason.
The layout has been specifically designed as a gathering place for visitors to the southern tip with walls to define spaces, to sit on or to climb on. A raised podium on the dune is to create photographic opportunities, views along the coast and as an outlook to sea and Antarctica beyond.
Safety and Inclusivity of Users
The design of the paving and structures takes into account the safety of children, the elderly and the physically handicapped, with access by wheelchair possible throughout the site.
The wide timber boardwalk has a raised section to serve as a bench, the intention being to avoid street furniture, such as free-standing benches, in the exposed landscape. The steel compass blades have an intentional rust finish to echo the metal shipwrecks along the coast.
Plant material, mainly succulents, were sourced from the surrounding area to retain the genetic integrity of the local flora, and no plants were purchased or brought in from outside. Plants were restricted to those that could be easily transplanted or grow from unrooted cuttings, and would survive through summer. Water was provided from a tanker during the establishment phase and thereafter there would be no further irrigation. Natural succession through seeding from the surrounds would result in colonization by larger shrubby plants over time, helping to soften the low stone walls.
The biodiversity and scenic resources of the project site and surrounds promotes tourism for the local economy.
Ecological Value and Connectivity
The rehabilitation of disturbed areas previously caused by vehicles and trampling has improved the ecological integrity of the coastal corridor.
Recreational Diversity and Educational Role
The enhancement of the site and surrounds has improved the visitor experience within the Agulhas National Park, and in addition, the Africa map provides enormous educational opportunity.
Cultural and Physical Activities
Standing at the southern tip of the continent provides a symbolic and spiritual experience for many, some of whom spontaneously erect small stone cairns with the beach pebbles, while others sit on rocks meditating and gazing across the ocean to Antarctica. There is no doubt that the relief map helps to psychologically situate visitors and remind them of their ‘Africaness’.
Conservation of Resources
The construction site was cordoned off by means of shade-cloth fencing to limit disturbance of the coastal vegetation, and environmental control was provided by Parks Board officials.
Water conservation has been achieved by using locally adapted plant species, with no irrigation required.
Sandstone for the walls was available from a nearby quarry at Bredasdorp helping to reduce transportation costs and energy use.
Besides the heritage and environmental impact assessments, illustrated signs were erected on the building site explaining the project to the public.
The southern tip icon forms only the first phase of a longer term environmental vision, which includes the upgrade of the historic lighthouse precinct with additional tourism facilities.
The project has a strong bias towards regionalism, with emphasis on local building and plant materials. The lowkey design aproach was intended to minimize visual intrusion in the scenically rugged coastal environment, and at the same time enhance the experience of nature.
Because of funding provided by the Department of Tourism, a high standard of design and finishes was made possible, turning a very non-descript site into an international destination. Although relatively small in scale, the Southernmost Tip of Africa icon will join the company of several other iconic sites in South Africa, where landscape architects have been involved.
According to the Department, employment was provided for 79 local community members and involved 7 small and medium enterprises. It also serves as a catalyst for tourism in the Agulhas-Struisbaai area, and considering the fairly modest budget, provides high value in return.